The quest to reach the throne was a deadly one.
I began my journey as a mutant resembling a purple geode. Armed with only a pistol and my ability to assume a protective crystalline form, I dove into the wastes in search of nuclear glory. It wasn’t long before I had upgraded my weaponry to a double-shotgun and a grenade launcher as my sidearm. Not only that, but I’d mutated further by collecting Rads. And then I got dominated by a Fire Salamander. Damn. Better luck next time.
I’m not talking about my latest experiences on my way to the Men’s Room. No, this mutagenic account details my last run through Vlambeer’s newest title Nuclear Throne. Nuclear Throne is a top-down twin-stick shooter set in a post-apocalyptic world. You assume the role of one of several mutants, each with their own mutagenic qualities (read: player attributes) that will aid them on their journey to the titular throne. The game is unforgiving, and anyone playing should expect to die. A lot. But like many games of its ilk, this just makes progression all the more rewarding.
It takes true grit to spray’n’pray your way to the end of Nuclear Throne. The first step to a successful run is selecting a mutant that suits your play style. If you’re like me, you prefer a safe approach to bullet-hell. The mutant Crystal has the highest starting health and is also able to become a solid gem, freezing her in place but making her immune to most damage. Alternatively, you can play as Melting, who has the lowest health in the cast but gains experience faster and has a corpse explosion ability.
You must clear each level of all its enemies in order to progress to the next. Along the way, you find chests containing a wide variety of weapons. Make no mistake, when I say wide, I mean WIDE. There are enough weapons in Nuclear Throne to make an operator aboard the Nebuchadnezzar blush. Are you more of a Triple Machine Gun type, or is the Gatling Slugger Strike tickle your fancy?
Along the way, you’ll also collect Rads from fallen enemies. These act as experience points in the wasteland. Collect enough and you’ll level up. If you collected enough Rads to level up once you’ve completed a zone, you’ll choose a new mutation for your mutant. These mutations provide you benefits. Bloodlust gives you a chance to recoup health upon killing an enemy. Boiling Veins prevents you from taking lethal damage from explosions. Did I mention there are a lot of explosions in the nuclear wastes? It’s the nuclear wastes. I shouldn’t need to mention that.
Nuclear Throne offers a lot of choice between the mutants, weapons, and mutations. The level progression is more static, though. The levels are generated procedurally, but the differences between one playthrough and the next are negligible. The first three levels are always the desert tiles, then the sewers, and the scrapyard after that. Each level is so small that slight differences in wall layout hardly matter. The real variety lies in the player’s mutant and weapon choice.
The game’s visuals are… well… cute. The characters and enemies are all simple animated sprites with just enough detail to convey a bit of character. Vlambeers has consistently chosen a low-res approach for game graphics. It makes sense for a small development team, allowing them to focus on gameplay. The sound design and music are also simple yet effective. The sound design especially stands out. Each pull of the trigger produces a heavy “K-CHUNK” feedback and the screen shakes, too.
Nuclear Throne’s real strength is its difficulty. Its tiny levels are packed wall-to-wall with tons of enemies, all of whom do their best shooty-killy routine. This game is tough. In fact, it’s so challenging that I can’t recommend it for anyone that isn’t a fan of shmups or difficult games in general. Binding of Isaac manages to live in the same design space but remains accessible to players of all skill levels. I can’t say the same about Nuclear Throne. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
The game is hard, but it feels very fair. Binding of Isaac seems deep at first blush, but it often becomes getting the same over-powered abilities and turd-blasting your way though the game effortlessly (blindfold optional). Not so with Nuclear Throne. First of all, there are a lot less turds. Secondly, Nuclear Throne doesn’t seem to have a cut-and-dry winning strategy. The pseudo-random nature of how mutations and weapons are presented force the player to adapt, but provide opportunities to make smart, synergistic choices.
Nuclear Throne is a game for players that enjoy a challenge. The game has its charm, cute graphics, appropriately retro music tracks, but the game’s strongest offering is its tight gameplay. If you’re the type of gamer that enjoys arcade-y challenges, chasing high-scores, or mastering classic shooters, you’ll enjoy Nuclear Throne. If, however, you’re the type to expect rewards for booting up the game, or an achievement and a pat on the head for collecting your first coin, you may want to pass. Nuclear Throne is aggressive, adorable, punishing, and silly- all at the same time. Best of all, it’s a very good game.